Being from an Italian Family was well…… a culinary journey and a eating endurance contest.
I grew up in a what was called as tenament in Fall River, Massachusetts. If you do not know what that is, it is simply a duplex stacked one on the other. We lived above my grandparents until I was around 7 years old. I recall holidays as a eat non-stop eating. We would start at the table with a 5 course meal that lasted for hours on end. And you were not excused from the table until the 5th course was finished. Naturally we had antipasti, pasta, soup before the entree arrived. This was a typical Italian Thanksgiving, where the bird was not always front and center.
I lived upstairs. In those days we had a ice box, with real block ice, a milkman and a bakery delivery. One might think that was a luxury in todays terms. Other than the icebox – I suppose it was. Preparing for the holidays was quite an event, I would come home from school, bolt up the back staircase, as the front staircase was off limits for me and was only used for company. I would always stop in to see what Grandma was cooking on my way up. Normally she would be making pasta, rolling it out gently on her ironing board. Did I say ironing board? We all know what that is – right? She would then gingerly transfer the freshly made pasta to a drying rack in preparation for a holiday meal. Tomato sauce with homemade Italian sausage was simmering with meatballs on the old stove. This is a recipe I still maintain today, despite the preponderance of jarred sauces that are available.
Dinner started at around 11:00 in the morning. As a family, we would stay at the table for at least 3 to 4 hours as if glued to our chairs. My Grandpa would kick things off perched at the head of the table with his traditional “salute” and a brandy in one hand. We talked about days gone by and summers at the Rhode Island cottage. One course followed another, each better than the first. Can you imagine on Thanksgiving Day starting with salami, cheese, olives, bread and more. Then came the pasta with sausage and meatballs. Finally, the turkey and fixings and then salad. But who had room? We have not even got to dessert! Gronk! Finally dessert – or I should say desserts. Grandma would make italian fried cookies coated with powdered sugar, cakes and other goodies.
After barely having the energy to move to the living room, we would then be entertained my Grandpa, who was amusing. He loved Opera. His vocal range was amazing. He would don hats, both male and female and sing the parts from the famous Opera ”Pagliacci” (meaning “Clowns”) is an Italian opera in a prologue and two acts, with music and libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo. It is the only Leoncavallo opera that is still widely performed. It is often staged by opera companies as a double bill with ”Cavalleria rusticana” by Mascagni, known as ”Cav and Pag”. His talent along with his brandy made for a memorable completion to the feast in which the brandy and the wine went down the drain per Grandma.
I now understand why I was a “pudgy” kid.